Differences in Play: How our ideas of play differ with demographics, and how those differences are manifested in design

When you look then, at these two spaces, playgrounds and fitness parks, you will see two drastically different ideas on what 'play' is.

We all recognize the importance of play for children. New York City alone is home to hundreds of children’s playgrounds–adventure and imagination playgrounds, modern designs, interactive sculptures, nature inspired, wood constructions, loose parts, prefab structures, and more.  The city seems to be devoted to designing, building, and renovating new & interesting places for children to play.

But what about all those teenagers and adults?

For some reason children are the only ones allowed to indulge in play, according to society. Teenagers and Adults who attempt to engage in some form of childhood play are dismissed as unproductive, self-indulgent, and immature; and are told to ‘grow up’ and be more responsible.  There must be structure and goals.

And, sadly, the city and society seems to agree by its construction.  Sure, there are hundreds of playgrounds, but how many are adults allowed to use?  And those that ARE designed for adults, what do they say about our expectations when it comes to adult play?

'Adult' Playgrounds

'Adult' Playgrounds

'Childrens' Playgrounds

'Childrens' Playgrounds

Let’s take a look at an example that will reflect the city at large–Central Park.  In Central Park there are 21 designated playgrounds (https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/central-park/facilities/playgrounds).  Of those 21, however, a grand total of 0 are allowed to be used by teenagers or adults. Instead, for adults, the park provides basketball and tennis courts, recreation centers, and soccer fields--all highly structured activities either requiring equipment or membership.  The closest thing to a playground that adults receive is a fitness park--just 1--which is a series of pull up bars and sit up stations.

And, when you look then, at these two different spaces for play, you will see two drastically different ideas on what 'play' is.

  • For children, play is imaginative, creative, and open ended. There are no guidelines on how to use the equipment (though most contemporary out-of-the-box systems certainly have movement expectations built in--for another time). There are bright colors, there are large structures, there are moving parts, sand, blocks, water, etc.
  • For adults, it is goal-oriented, structured, and well-established. Each piece is isolated, with instructions and directions.  There is no room really for free thought beyond how many reps am I doing.  Everything is contained, stable. Pull up station, sit up station. Balance here, specifically, but not really anywhere else. 

It is established that adults need play as much as children in order to nourish and support their mental, physical, cognitive, and social health---so why are our spaces so drastically different?

Grounds for Play: Towards a Ludic Architecture

This November, I will be daily releasing a series of short reflections as I organize my thoughts, research, and ideas about the American Playground and its place in the future of urban and public spaces.

Specifically I will be trying to (1) document the history of the playground in the modern era, (2) examine physical spaces from which games, play, and ludic behavior have naturally emerged over time, (3) inventory exemplary cases, on both extremes of success and failure, (4) explore potential principles for designing play into public spaces, and (5) argue for the elimination of the playground as an autonomous, isolated, and un-integrated space in our cities. 

This will culminate in a guidepost, a set of principles and recommendations--a manifesto for the next great american playground, and the future of play in our urban fabric.

Inventory of Posts:

Current Questions:

This section is a sort of dumping grounds for questions and ideas I wish to explore. This is a 'living' post and will be updated regularly as the month moves along.

  • How do we define play, playground, and play-ground?
  • How do these definitions change when cross-sectioned with demographics, and how are these differences in definition and expectation manifested in design?
  • What is a ludic space, what are our goals, and how do we measure its 'success'.
  • What are the most common features of oustanding ludic spaces? Failing ones?
  • What are our major influencing factors involved in whether or not it is a 'success'.
    • Cultural influences
    • Player / Emotional background
    • Physical dimensions
  • The Age of Guerrilla Play; How our bad decisions in design has lead to the re-appropriation of public space and a counterculture of movement.

Park Hill Estate by Lynn and Smith

Park Hill estate, Sheffield, 1963. Part of the Park Hill estate, designed by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, who were tutored by the Smithsons – the founders of new brutalism. The estate was famous for its experimental ideas, like walkways in the sky, and that approach was reflected in the playground. Photograph: Arch Press Archive/RIBA.

Park Hill, Sheffield - 1963. Image © Arch Press Archive RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Park Hill, Sheffield - 1963. Image © Arch Press Archive RIBA Library Photographs Collection